On February 22, Prime Minister Boris Johnson presented the long-awaited details of Great Britain’s route out of lockdown. The announcement was, unsurprisingly, cautious. The details were relatively few, and the caveats numerous. But Johnson nevertheless laid out a timetable for the gradual lifting of restrictions, culminating in the most exciting step of all: June 21, the summer solstice, the date when Britain aims to lift virtually all remaining Covid restrictions and allow, at long last, a “return to normal.”
It can be difficult to remember what “normal” means. Beginning my studies at Cambridge University in September 2019, I had two terms of normalcy before the pandemic shut down the country and the world. Classes were moved to Zoom, libraries closed, and exams were thrown into confusion. The dizzying, halcyon intensity of Cambridge gave way to an eerie remove, as the thrills of the summer term were replaced by a strange period of quiet study from my childhood bedroom. I was, of course, very lucky to have a home environment so conducive to study. But the sense of loss was nevertheless acute. It is no surprise, then, that for me and my fellow students the promises of June 21 were met with fevered excitement. Across Cambridge, a flurry of parties and gatherings have been planned in parks and restaurants, while St. John’s College has a plan for its May Ball to take place the next day.
Nor was the excitement limited to students. Across all of Great Britain, the date of June 21 took on a near-totemic significance. It dominated many newspaper front pages the day after the announcement, while social media was immediately awash with excitement and speculation, including several petitions to make June 21 an official bank holiday. Of course, much could go wrong between now and then. The threat of new coronavirus variants or a reduced vaccine supply are just two of many things that could derail the government’s reopening plan. Moreover, it remains uncertain whether all the measures will be completely relaxed, with some predicting that some kind of mask requirement will remain in place for years to come. The practicalities of June 21 remain far from clear. But the practicalities may not be the point. One could argue that the real importance of the date is that it marks a symbolic end to the pandemic. It is the time when, as the prime minister says, we will “reclaim our freedoms”—a chance to put a singularly wretched year behind us and “return to normal.” Although the coronavirus will almost certainly still be present in Britain, the government’s message is that after June 21 the miserable Covid era will be over.
That the government can make such a bold claim, even in the midst of the current lockdown, is mainly due to one factor: Britain’s extraordinary vaccine rollout. At the time of writing, Britain has offered 62.03 vaccine doses per 100 people, second only to Chile and Israel, and higher than both the United States (with 61.56 doses per 100 people) and Europe (with 23.55). Despite recent setbacks, the vaccination program has proved an almost baffling success for a country increasingly resigned to government incompetence, and unsurprisingly has become a major focus of the current Conservative government, which is aiming to restore its beleaguered reputation with a “vaccine bounce.” This is in some ways not unjustified. More than half of the British population has now been vaccinated with at least one dose and, according to Public Health England, the vaccine may already have saved more than ten thousand lives, a figure that will surely substantially increase as lockdown lifts. The scientists, doctors, and volunteers who contributed to the speed of this rollout all deserve praise.